Friday, 23 December 2011

Cricket, I confess

Cricket, I confess, was never my strong point, though of all team games it was the one I most enjoyed. My father first taught me to play, pacing out a wicket on the rectory lawn. To this day, one of my proudest memories from childhood is of coming home for the summer holidays at the end of my first year at prep school, and bowling dad with a perfect off-break, first ball.

His look of astonishment, turning rapidly to pride in his son's new-found prowess, matched mine. He marched down the wicket, grinning broadly, shook my hand and then gave me a rare hug. 'Well done!" he said. "I say! Congratulations!" "Thanks, Dad," I replied. I don't think he and I ever loved each other so much as we did at that moment. I miss him.

I played in my prep school XI for three years, and later got, once, into the 2nd. XI at St. John’s, my next school. I played no cricket in the five years I was at university. When I started teaching, at Bedford School, I coached a junior team for a while, but the standard of cricketing expertise among the staff was generally high (there were at least three blues among them - including the headmaster; it was that sort of school) and I felt myself out of my league. I was sure the boys could tell I wasn't up to the job. Still, I enjoyed the idea that cricket mattered at Bedford: Jack Hobbs had had his first job in professional cricket there - as a groundsman.

My mother once gave me a photograph of Jack Hobbs, signed by the great man himself in the bottom right-hand corner. She was upset, I remember, when I told her proudly I had swapped it with a boy at school for an autograph by Trevor Bailey. Bailey's was a flamboyant scrawl, the sort of autograph I thought a famous cricketer should produce, like a flashy cover drive. ‘J B Hobbs', by contrast, was a neat, almost copperplate, signature: nothing extrovert about it. That wasn't his style. 

These recollections have been prompted by two pieces in today's TLS. There is a review of a new biography of Jack Hobbs by Leo McKinstry, subtitled 'England's greatest cricketer'. The reviewer admits it is hard to argue against this claim but qualifies it by saying that "Hobbs's career was one of relentless self-improvement rather than of innate brilliance." If I were a graphologist, I'd say that's exactly what his autograph signature suggests: someone conscientious, hard-working, unimaginative. The reviewer sums him up by quoting John Arlott's verdict: "An unassuming man ...  Making it all so simple." Making it all so simple is what great batsmen do. If there is an English cricketer at the moment who stands any chance of equalling Hobbs's achievement, it's someone else with the gift of making it seem so simple while managing to maintain ferocious concentration - Alastair Cook, who also learned his cricket at Bedford School (long after my time).

The Hobbs biography review is tucked away at the back of the TLS. The second piece that caught my eye has an oblique link to the first, though no one else may notice it. Much nearer the front, and entitled 'Loafing about', is a long and very complimentary review by A.N. Wilson of a new edition of the letters of P.G. Wodehouse (P.G. Wodehouse: a life in letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe). Wilson admires 'Plum' Wodehouse greatly, summing him up as "a humane man who put jokes first". He quotes a letter from Wodehouse to an old school friend from Dulwich College, written during the Second World War:

"I was thrilled by what you told me about Dulwich winning all its school matches last cricket season .... It's odd but I don't find world cataclysms and my own personal troubles make any difference to my feelings about Dulwich. To win the Bedford match seems just as important to me as it ever did".

Dulwich and Bedford still play an annual cricket fixture (this year’s match was abandoned because of rain). But I wonder if it means as much to anyone today as it evidently meant to Wodehouse?

The other day I found an article I once wrote about Edmund Blunden and his love of cricket. It was never published. But Blunden too had written about Jack Hobbs, in his book Cricket Country (1944), recalling that

Of Hobbs the well-graced I retain a very particular impression ... his ability to make the lightning ball appear to be in no hurry at all, so far as he and his bat were concerned.

Blunden described cricket as more than a science:  “a wheel of fortune, and a drama of personalities and intentions … a poem, a vision, a philosophy". Indeed, in one of his most famous poems, 'Cricket, I confess', Blunden gives up the struggle to explain cricket to a foreign friend and allows his mind to wander:

I fell silent, while kind memories played
Bat and ball in the sunny past, not much dismayed
Why these things were, and why I liked them so.
O my Relf and Jess and Hutchings long ago.

I know why I like this poem so. Cricket invites nostalgia, and here Blunden executes a deft reverse sweep of memory. His last line recalls the most famous refrain in English cricketing poetry, from 'At Lord's' by Francis Thompson. Thompson, author of 'The Hound of Heaven', remembers watching Lancashire playing at Lord's and, standing on the boundary of his own life, he calls up the ghosts of the two greatest cricketing heroes of his youth:

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro: -
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

[illustration: Sir Jack Hobbs, cricketer

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due out in the Spring, published by the Lutterworth Press. You can find details of the book, and read the opening chapters, by clicking here.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely story, that, Adrian. I only ever played croquet on the vicarage lawn in Arnold (I was in love with the vicar’s daughter at the time, although I never let on) and my only moment of cricket glory was a diving catch in slips at Kingswell Primary School. Yes, cricket is a very nostalgic thing, especially for an ex-pat like myself. I miss the clip of the ball off the bat and the clink of the cups during tea. The almost narcotic smell of the grass, too. Grass-stained cricket whites. That and band stands on Sunday afternoons pouring out uninhibited brass band music. A Wikipedia article has brought one of Francis Thompson’s heroes quite home to me:
    ‘In 1884 at Trent Bridge, for the North of England against the Australians, Barlow played the game of his life. He scored not out 10 and 101 and took ten wickets—four for six runs and six for 42. It is on record that when the North started their second innings on a slow and nasty wicket, Fred Spofforth, Australia's Demon bowler said, "Give me the ball: they won't get more than 60". As events turned out they got 255, Barlow and Flowers putting on 158 runs together after five wickets had fallen for 53. At the end of that afternoon Barlow was a very happy man.’
    I was quite moved by the words on his tombstone: ‘bowled at last’. A friend of mine, a cricketer in his spare time, once told me that women ask for cricket commentary to be played to them during labour. They find it relaxing. Helps with the delivery. I wish you a very Merry Christmas ... and a long and happy innings.